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Complex design thinking: beyond the designer’s point of view

Design thinking is gaining increasing recognition as a means of bringing public services closer to end users and ensuring that diverse requirements are taken into account. It relies on service designers engaging with communities to put themselves in the end-users’ place while setting aside their personal views. As well as delivering greater public good, this has the potential to avoid costly implementation failures when well-intentioned government programs are poorly matched to community needs and expectations.

Design thinking encourages designers and policy makers to look into the hearts of communities and individuals to provide programs and services that will satisfy real rather than perceived needs. However, while they move us closer to understanding what the end-users of services want, the interpretation of the community’s needs remains in a separate arena from the expression of those needs. We can do more to close this gap.

Over the past 15 years, useful ideas have emerged that make it possible to get further into the end-user’s world. They allow us to work at a scale that has not been practicable in the past and to stay in touch with an environment as it evolves. The core of this work is a recognition that stakeholders exert an influence on the environment in which they exist and the environment exerts an influence on the stakeholders. Both the environment and the stakeholders’ needs are dynamic so we cannot rely on a static snapshot that will be overtaken as the system evolves in response to stakeholder behaviour, program implementation and external forces.

With the best will in the world:

  • The privileged position of the designer will lead to important insights being obscured and overlooked;
  • Community involvement will generally be constrained by the time and expense involved in engaging large numbers of people; and
  • Time and expense will also limit long-term exercises such as longitudinal studies or program implementation monitoring.

Workshop and web-enabled methods developed by David Snowden and his colleagues at Cognitive Edge consciously avoid introducing the designers’ point of view into the process from the outset. They enable stakeholders to disclose their requirements without interference as well as allowing us to tap into very large groups and to track shifting social environments. They offer a framework within which communities can formulate actions to influence their own environment.

These methods exploit the way people use narratives recounting their personal experiences to bring important matters into the open. Even very short narratives have the power to convey subtle aspects of complex social and other interactions. The approach has been proven at scales from small collocated teams, such as employee engagement studies, to dispersed communities with no formal connections spanning large geographical areas, such as studies of girls’ empowerment, community development, agriculture and human rights in Africa.

While they employ narrative capture, these methods avoid semantic analysis and similar mechanistic tools by enabling participants to indicate the significance of their contributions themselves. Going well beyond the use of open questions and empathy, this results in a potent means of exposing what really matters to communities and stakeholder groups in their own terms.

Making sense of complex systems can be undertaken in a workshop setting or it can be scaled up with simple and powerful, yet relatively inexpensive, web enabled tools. It offers policy makers direct access to the real concerns of end-users and other stakeholders without intermediate layers of interpretation and filtering. Many people can be engaged in the process at one time and revisited inexpensively over an extended period, where this is worthwhile.

Three examples from projects, undertaken by the Australian company Complexability, offer an indication of what is possible.

  • NSW Meals on Wheels enriched the long standing, almost iconic, view of its role to find that it could differentiate between client groups to optimise the balance between providing food and providing social contact. It was able to formulate policy recommendations that will improve service delivery while preserving the crucial alignment between volunteers’ values and those of the organisation. The insights appear straightforward after the event but were not uncovered prior to the introduction of new methods. This time-honoured institution with a powerful culture was so strongly established in the minds of its administrators, volunteers and clients that a fresh viewpoint had to be approached obliquely and free from preconceptions.
  • A South Pacific leadership program used these methods to allow the program itself to evolve as the participants developed within it over the course of two years. The participants were able to bring the reflective learning and innovation components of the program to bear on their own learning environment so that, with the help of a facilitator, they enabled themselves to achieve more than they might have in a static program and saw their new capability at work directly.
  • A powerful exploration of the lived experience of depression engaged patients, carers and clinicians in identifying complex needs without being constrained by the received wisdom that surrounds the subject. Among the insights that were revealed was the opportunity to direct support normally targeted at young male patients towards middle aged female patients to meet a particular need that had not been recognised previously.
The Cynefin framework (click to enlarge)
The Cynefin framework (click to enlarge)

These methods are based on probing a system without allowing preconceptions to colour the process, sensing how it reacts using the stakeholders’ unfiltered views, and seeking to make beneficial shifts in the system while carrying on sensing its evolving disposition. They are designed to address systems that, in terms of the Cynefin framework (see diagram right and video below), are complex. They bring a light touch to a challenging subject and offer clean insights with a modest level of effort even when applied at large scale.

Continue reading: resources describing these methods can be found at Complexability and Broadleaf.

Author Bio

Stephen Grey

Dr Stephen Grey is a risk management consultant and director with Broadleaf. Stephen's work has encompassed many sectors including resources, infrastructure, construction, IT, communications, climate change, and public sector procurement. In addition to his work in Australia and New Zealand, his assignments with Broadleaf have taken him to the UK, South Africa, the Philippines, the USA and Canada.